Arts & Theater

New SFMOMA: International destination for modern, contemporary art

First impressions of the transformed and expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: It’s huge, it’s beautiful, and everywhere you turn, a big “Wow!” pops out of your mouth. Even the brightly colored bathrooms will make you gasp. Best of all, it offers free access to ground-floor galleries and free admission for visitors 18 and younger.

Designed by the architecture firm Snohetta, the new SFMOMA gracefully blends a 10-story expansion with the original Mario Botta-designed building, which opened in 1995. With 170,000 square feet of new and renovated indoor and outdoor galleries, 1,900 stellar works from the museum’s collection – from Henri Matisse’s 1905 “Woman With a Hat” to contemporary works by Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman and others – have been thoughtfully installed on seven floors of the environmentally friendly museum, which sports LED lights, a living wall of verdant plants, several terraces and sculpture gardens, and many window views of the city.

The new SFMOMA will greatly enhance the cultural profile of the Bay Area and draw viewers from around the world. Consider: three times more gallery space than before, a bold facade on the east-facing side of the new expansion inspired in part by the fog and waters of San Francisco Bay, the largest exhibition and study space for photography of any art museum in the United States, light-filled galleries that are intimate yet spacious, featuring 260 works from the renowned Doris and Donald Fisher collection of postwar and contemporary art and 600 promised and newly acquired works from the museum’s Campaign for Art, and whole rooms devoted to Joseph Beuys and Diane Arbus.

Unfortunately, the timed tickets for the opening day festivities on Saturday, May 14, are sold out, but timed tickets are available to purchase online for May 15 and afterward.

As one of the museum’s proud staff members said to me on the elevator as I was leaving, “This is no longer a one-day museum.” If you’re planning to go, I’d advise making it a weekend outing. You might also think about getting an annual membership that gives you unlimited access for $100.

The 19 special exhibitions on view made me realize what thoughtful and savvy collectors the Fishers are (their holdings of American art from abstract expressionism to pop to minimalism and figurative art, German art since 1960, and British sculptors from Barbara Hepworth to Tony Cragg are very strong) and how intelligent curation can change your mind about artists you used to not like very much.

I completely reversed my opinion of Donald Judd, whose copper wall stacks and stunning “To Susan Buckwalter” I found curiously beautiful and moving. I also changed my mind about Sol LeWitt, whose work I always thought was cold and boring. I was impressed by many of his wall drawings, especially a roomful of spiky, converging lines that had the feeling of a cool version of the menacing German expressionist sets in the silent film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

It would be impossible to note all the superlative features and works on view at the expansive new museum, but here are some highlights:

▪ On the ground floor’s Howard Street side, you can walk through the interlocking ellipses of Richard Serra’s monumental free-standing sculpture “Sequence,” which is also viewable by passers-by on the street, and marvel at a large Alexander Calder on the Third Street side.

▪ On the second floor, you meet old friends in an installation of painting and sculpture since 1900, from the permanent collection, including works by Matisse, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Clifford Still, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko and Jay DeFeo, and a special showing of Northern California art, with works by Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson, William T. Wiley, Joan Brown, David Ireland, Tom Marioni and others in “Art of Northern California: Three Views.”

▪ The third floor has photographic works from SFMOMA’s collection featuring 180 years of photographic history in formats ranging from daguerrotypes to slide projections to video installation and images of California and the West by Carleton E. Watkins, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Ed Ruscha and others.

▪ The Fisher Collection begins on the fourth floor with an exploration of American abstraction that ranges from Joan Mitchell’s sublime gestural paintings to Martin Puryear’s enigmatic sculptures. There are several rooms devoted to Ellsworth Kelly’s elegant, intensely colored, shaped canvases and reliefs and an amazing octagonal gallery devoted to elusive, visually intriguing paintings of delicate grids that glow with self-generated light by Agnes Martin.

▪ The elevators open on the fifth floor to Sol Lewitt’s eye-popping aggressively yellow wall drawing, leading you to the Fishers’ strong holdings in pop, minimal and figurative art, featuring works by Claus Oldenburg. Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, Philip Guston, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Frank Stella and many others.

▪ On the sixth floor, you won’t want to miss Anselm Kiefer’s powerful paintings including “Sulamith” and sculpture “Melancholia,” a lead fighter plane with a glass polyhedron on top referring to the Albrecht Dürer print of the same name, as well as works by Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke and others. Select works by William Kentridge and Shirin Neshat are also on view.

▪ You’ll find contemporary art made since 1980 in the loftlike galleries on the seventh floor. In addition to Koons’ “Large Vase of Flowers,” you won’t want to miss California sculptor Charles Ray’s “Sleeping Woman” and works by international artists such as Thomas Schutte, Luc Tuymans and Ai Weiwei.

Among the amenities are three dining places: In Situ by Michelin three-starred chef Cory Lee for lunch and dinner, which will open in June on the ground floor; Sightglass at SFMOMA for coffee and pastries next to the new Photography Interpretive Gallery on the third floor; and Cafe 5 for light California fusion fare inside the fifth-floor pavilion or outside it in the Jean and James Douglas Family Sculpture Garden.

A newly renovated museum store is on the first floor, and a new satellite store on the second floor features exclusive SFMOMA-branded items.


Where: 151 Third St., (between Howard and Minna), San Francisco, with entrances on Howard Street, Third Street and Minna Street.

When: Opening celebration on Saturday, May 14, is sold out; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily and Thursdays until 9 p.m. through Labor Day.

Cost: $19-$25, free for those 18 and younger and for museum members; free access to ground-floor galleries

Information: (415) 357-4000;